In the 2010s, Shane McAnally established himself as a songwriting and producing force in Nashville. The Grammy, ACM and CMA winner has notched dozens of hits, and worked with a long list of country music A-listers; in 2019, he parlayed his success in Music City into a mentor role on NBC's songwriting-focused competition show Songland.

For years before, however, McAnally struggled with his identity, both personally and musically. The Mineral Wells, Texas, native moved to Nashville at the age of 19 and charted three singles while signed to Curb Records in 1999 and 2000; however, McAnally, who is gay, now says that he was so concerned with being outed that he couldn't be himself.

"I just wanted to be in country music, and back then, I wanted to be in country music worse than I wanted to be true to myself," McAnally tells The Boot. "And that's swapped now, clearly, and what happened was, by being true to myself, I was able to be in country music."

McAnally doesn't try to guess at what the industry's reaction would have been if he had come out back then, though he admits that "watching Ty Herndon and seeing what happened to his career when he was outed, I was afraid of ever taking that step." Herndon, who publicly came out in 2014, earned a string of Top 20 singles in the late '90s, but found his sexuality a topic of speculation after being arrested in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1995, after allegedly exposing himself to a male undercover police officer.

"Growing up in a small town in Texas ... I didn't know any gay people. Maybe I knew them, but they weren't out," McAnally tells The Boot. "That just sounded so foreign, and it sounded so wrong, because, you know, I had a lot of religion around me and a lot of fear of what that meant ...

"So it took me a long time on my personal journey to come to terms with with me being okay with me," the tunesmith adds. "And so it was more about that it was about the reaction of Nashville."

Though McAnally continued to struggle throughout the 2000s after leaving Nashville for Los Angeles, he still feels "so blessed" to be part of a generation of creatives who can both be out, with a partner and children, and have a career in country music. "I don't think people 20 years older than me had that luxury, or even 10 years older than me. I think I'm right on the cusp of when it started to change," McAnally, 45, muses.

As a songwriter, McAnally doesn't have the same level of name recognition as the genre's star artists, but he's still a known face in country music (and, thanks to Songland, beyond it, too). He's hopeful that he can, for the next generation, provide the kind of representation that might have helped him early on in his career.

"Hopefully even my presence will allow someone else to speak up," McAnally says, "and it has. I mean, I've had a lot of artists that say, 'I'm trying to do this, and I've watched your career,' and so it's a huge compliment that people are seeing my being out as a positive force.

"But," he concludes, "we need more."

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

LOOK: A Brief History of Queer Country